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Food fight

Michael KniggeOctober 16, 2012

On November 6, California will vote whether genetically modified food should be labeled - a long-standing practice in Europe. The move has drawn fierce opposition from US corporate interests - and two German firms.

Image: picture-alliance/ZB

The often-used biblical account of David vs. Goliath doesn't always work when it's applied to modern-day battles between two unequal adversaries, but in the fight over labeling genetically engineered foods in California it does.

The battle pits the combined resources of a vast coalition of agribusiness, food industry and grocery manufacturers against a small group of organic farmers and stores and committed individuals.

At the center of the fight is Proposition 37, an initiative that will be on the California ballot on election day and would make it mandatory to label genetically modified food. In the US there is no national law requiring foods containing genetically modified organisms to be labeled.

And since an estimated 80 percent of food products sold in the US contain genetically modified ingredients, a labeling law in California would force the food industry to set up two entirely separated product streams.

Even worse for the industry is Europe's record ever since the EU made GM food labels mandatory in 1997: Even though GM foods are allowed, the law has de facto kept genetically engineered foods off the shelves in Europe because consumers are simply not buying them.

Failed attempts

In the US there have been many failed attempts to require labels for GM foods in various states. But what makes Proposition 37 so significant is not just that California would be the first state to institute GM labels, its California's unique position and history among US states.

With its 37 million residents California is not just the most populous state in the union, but as a stand-alone economy it would be the ninth-biggest country in the world by gross domestic product.

Combine that with California's record as a national and international trendsetter on health and environmental regulation - for example as the first state to ban lead from gasoline, pass anti-smoking legislation, cap green houses gas emissions from businesses - and you can imagine why the food and agribusiness community is worried.

In this July 13, 2010 photograph, the DEKALB corn logo is seen on alongside rows of corn near Pleasant Plains, Ill. DEKALB is one of Monsanto's leading North American brands. Monsanto said Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010, it expects full year earnings at the low end of its previous expected range. The world's largest seed company is also cutting up to 700 more jobs. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Monsanto's GM seeds are a major product for the firmImage: AP

So it's no surprise then that the industry is pulling out all the stops to prevent Proposition 37 from becoming law in California.

Monsanto is biggest donor

Under the leadership of Monsanto, the world's biggest seed producer, the campaign against GM labels has so far raised $35 million (27 million euros), according to public records.

With $7 million Monsanto alone has spent more than the supporters of Proposition 37 have raised collectively so far with $4 million.

While the anti-label donor list with households names like Pepsico, Coca Cola, Kellogg and Mars reads like the Who-is-Who of the American food industry, two German companies stand out and have spent more to defeat Proposition 37 than all of the companies mentioned above.

German firms oppose Proposition 37

BASF and Bayer have each invested $2 million so far in the campaign to block GM labels in California. Only Monsanto and Dupont, the US chemical firm, spent more.

BASF, the world's biggest chemical company, and Bayer, Germany's biggest pharmaceutical company, both have large business units focused on genetic engineering. BASF earlier this year even moved the headquarters of its GM business to the US citing a lack of support in Europe.

This explains why they our outspending most other American and international companies to stop labels for GM foods, says Michael Hansen, the senior scientist at Consumers Union, the independent consumers organization which publishes Consumer Reports magazine:

"These German firms are doing the genetic engineering. So it's their stake in the fight because it's their ultimate ingredient that would be labeled."

Fight against rules resembling EU law

What makes the behavior of BASF and Bayer especially intriguing is the fact that they are investing millions to oppose the very rules that have been in place in their home markets of Germany and Europe for years.

"It's outrageous that German companies are spending so much money to defeat our right to know in California," Stacy Malkan, spokeswoman for the California Right to Know 2012 ballot initiative, told DW per e-mail.

Auf einer Anbaufläche für genmanipulierten Mais im Oderbruch nahe dem brandenburgischen Seelow protestieren am 03.05.2005 Greenpeace-Aktivisten mit einem riesigen Drachen auf dem ein Gen-Mais-Monster abgebildet ist. Etwa 50 Greenpeace-Aktivisten protestierten am gleichen Tag an einer der größten Anbauflächen für genmanipulierten Mais in Brandenburg gegen die Aussaat von Gen-Pflanzen. Auf diesem Feld wurde bereits der Gen-Mais MON810 des US-Saatgutkonzerns Monsanto ausgesät. Greenpeace fordert einen Anbaustopp für Gen-Mais. Der Anbau von MON810 ist in Polen, Ungarn und Österreich bereits verboten. Foto: Patrick Pleul +++(c) dpa - Report+++
Germans are very critical of GM foodsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Hansen calls this behavior "situational ethics." He says the firms simply do whatever the laws of the country they do business in allow them to do.

"I think it is really a shame that Bayer and BASF finance a counter-campaign against labeling," notes Heike Moldenhauer, the GM expert at Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) in Berlin. "Both wouldn't dare such propaganda here in Europe."

"I find it actually a little outrageous that particularly German companies meddle so massively in domestic US policy," says Martin Häusling, agricultural policy spokesman for the Greens in the European Parliament.

He adds that they certainly have the legal right to do so, but that the European and German public should know about their behavior. "I am not sure if this will help the public image of these companies."

Companies say Proposition 37 is misleading

In a statement to DW, Bayer CropScience, the company's GM unit, didn't address questions about its $2 million donation to the anti-Proposition 37 campaign and whether it plans to invest more money to defeat the initiative. The company also didn't respond to questions about whether it has a different perception of European vs. Californian consumers.

"Bayer CropScience principally supports that consumers should be comprehensively and transparently informed," spokesman Utz Klages said via e-mail. But California's Proposition 37 "doesn't create full transparency for consumers," he added. "Instead it creates uncertainty because it creates the wrong impression that there are differences in the safety and nutritional characteristics, when in fact none exist."

BASF also didn't address questions about its $2 million dollar to the anti-Proposition 37 campaign and whether it plans to invest more money to defeat the initiative.

"In order to provide higher transparency for customers and consumers, we welcome any sort of labeling as long as it is not misleading or discriminatory,” BASF spokeswoman Jennifer Moore-Braun told DW via e-mail. "However, we do not believe this is the case with Proposition 37," she added. BASF believes "the intention of the ballot initiative is not to inform consumers, but rather to discriminate against agricultural biotechnology."

Ein Landwirt hält am Donnerstag (22.09.2011) in Hilpoltstein (Mittelfranken) Sojabohnen in den Händen. Was in den Futtertrögen der bayerischen Viehzüchter landet, hat meist einen weiten Weg hinter sich. Das als Eiweiß-Lieferant geschätzte Soja stammt meist aus Brasilien Argentinien oder den USA. Doch das soll sich ändern. Immer mehr bayerische Bauern testen den Soja-Anbau. Foto: Daniel Karmann dpa/lby (zu dpa-Korr: "Eiweiß aus der Bohne: Soja in Bayern auf dem Vormarsch" vom 23.09.2011)
Soy is a key GM plant in the USImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Asked about differences between Europe and the US, Moore-Braun said, that "in Europe, we support the existing EU labeling thresholds in food and feed of 0.9 percent for all GM plants approved in the EU." But, she added, "the current legislation in Europe is misleading since there are for example too many exemptions from the labeling requirements."

In the US, said Moore-Braun, national policy doesn't requiring labelling of GM foods since it "would be misleading to consumers because it falsely implies that there are differences in safety and nutritional characteristics, when in fact none exist."


Despite the fact that GM labels are required in the EU and not in the US, Europeans and Americans generally have similar views on the issue. When polled, both routinely state they want labels on genetically modified foods.

According to an ABC News survey from June, 93 percent of Americans said the government should mandate labels for GM foods. More than half of respondents stated they would be less likely to buy food bearing such a label.

Ziel des "Right2Know" Marsches im Oktober war das Weiße Haus. Die Demonstranten erinnerten Präsident Barack Obama an sein Versprechen, sich für die Kennzeichnung von gentechnisch veränderten Lebensmitteln einzusetzen. Foto: Christina Bergmann, DW, Washington, DC, 16. Oktober 2011
Earlier efforts to label GM foods in the US have falteredImage: DW

Americans and Europeans are pretty much on the same page when it comes to GM foods, argues Häusling. "The more consumers know about genetic engineering the more likely is their resistance to buying such products, instead of the other way around."

The reason there are no GM-labeling laws in the US is therefore not because the American public trusts GM foods, but because corporations in the US have more influence and can spend large amounts of money to get the outcome they want, say the experts.

Support crumbles

Until recently, polls in California showed large majorities in favor of Proposition 37. But since the No-campaign has begun spending the millions it raised from industry to blanket California's airwaves with ads against GM labels, support for the measure is crumbling. After the beginning of the ad campaign the latest poll last week showed 48 percent in support of labels and 40 percent against it.

"This is a massive fight pitting the people against the corporations, and we are going to do everything we can to make sure the people win, but it is going to be a tough fight," says Malkan. "The pesticide and junk food companies are spending one million dollars a day to bombard California with deceptive ads designed to confuse people about a simple label."

With three weeks to go and millions of dollars to be spent by the No-campaign - practically uncontested by supporters of labels - Proposition 37 could end up like so many other attempts to introduce labels for genetically modified foods in the US: As a fight ultimately won by the deep pockets of Goliath.